India and China Spar for Most Polluted Capital City

Traffic make way in haze mainly caused by air pollution in Delhi, on Jan. 20, 2014.
Kuni Takahashi—Bloomberg/Getty Images Traffic make way in haze mainly caused by air pollution in Delhi on Jan. 20, 2014

Is New Delhi's air pollution worse than Beijing's?

A media kerfuffle broke out in India this week over whether New Delhi has finally surpassed Beijing as having worse air quality than the infamous Chinese capital. A report carried by the Hindustan Times, an Indian daily, claimed that New Delhi had “earned the dubious tag of being the world’s most polluted city,” according to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a report put out by Yale and Columbia. The Wall Street Journal subsequently reported that the EPI used national statistics in its indexing, and even if it did compile information city by city, New Delhi does not keep reliable enough data to make a direct comparison to Beijing possible.

(MORE: Beijing Chokes on Record Pollution, and Even the Government Admits There’s a Problem)

I’m just speaking for myself here, but as I look out this morning on a city blanketed by an indistinguishable mix of fog, dust and toxic heavy particles, I find it hard to take great comfort in any win for India in this. Parents may not be sending their kids to school in gas masks … yet, but it’s not exactly a fine day for a jog. (The New York Times’ own findings indicate the Indian capital’s fine particulate matter has, on average, been worse than Beijing in the first weeks of the year.)

Wherever New Delhi lands, the EPI did rank India’s air quality 174th out of 178 countries measured; only Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh came in lower. So one would hope Indian authorities do not interpret this as a pass. A 2012 study showed that pollution levels have been growing faster in Indian cities than in China. If it’s not a matter of now, it might simply be a matter of when.

MORE: India’s Air Pollution: Is It Worse Than China’s?

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